ST. PAUL — As the Wild continue preparation for their upcoming qualifying series against the Vancouver Canucks, coach Dean Evason is looking for some chippiness out of his players.
“It’s part of the progression,” Evason said. “I hope they are sick and tired of each other at this point and want to get after someone else.”
Luckily for Evason, he has a player on his team who has no problem stirring the pot: 23-year-old Joel Eriksson Ek.
Though he is stingy with his words on and off the ice, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound center from Sweden has a knack for irritating opponents during games.
“Because he’s pretty annoying to play against,” linemate Zach Parise said with a laugh. “He’s got an edge to him that can get under the opponent’s skin. He does that to a lot of guys in practice even.”
That much has been clear throughout the Wild’s revamped training camp as Eriksson Ek always seems to be smack dab in the middle of a board battle. He was as physical as ever throughout Wednesday’s practice and likely will bring that same level of intensity to Thursday’s scrimmage.
Asked about his ability as an agitator, Eriksson Ek assured that he doesn’t do it on purpose. He’s never looking for a fight when he hops over the boards.
“I don’t think that’s something I’m putting my energy into,” he said. “It just comes to me. I’m not trying to go out and run over guys. I’m trying to play as hard as I can every shift and work as hard as I can to help my team.”
That tends to make opponents lose their focus. No matter if it’s a face wash after the whistle, or a bevy of haymakers out of the blue, Eriksson Ek has seen it all over the course of his career.
Maybe the most agitating thing about Eriksson Ek is that he almost never responds to taunting. He maintains his same blank stare regardless of the situation — and that only makes opponents more upset as the game progresses.
That could bode well for Eriksson Ek in the postseason as his line will more than likely be tasked with shutting down Canucks star Elias Pettersson and whoever he is centering on a given night.
“We’re just going to try to force turnovers and get the puck behind their D and work from there,” Eriksson Ek said. “I think our strength is in the forecheck and getting pucks around the net and taking second opportunities on the puck.”
That said, Eriksson Ek doesn’t see himself as the player solely in charge of limiting Pettersson throughout the qualifying series.
“It’s not only me,” Eriksson Ek said. “It’s going to be the whole team that’s going to have to do it. We know we are going to have to play hard and defend and then go from there. Just work the right way and do the right things all the time to be successful.”
It’s also safe to assume Eriksson Ek will get his opponents to unravel at some point, and that might be enough to make the difference.
“He is going to be a very important part,” Evason said. “He’s taken such a big step forward with his development in his all-around game. We have seen his offensive game get better and better. Plus, his compete level is as high as anybody. He’s as strong and skates as well. Just a real hard guy to play against. We are going to use him in a lot of different situations.”